My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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This Wednesday: Quiz: Do you know yourself? It’s surprisingly hard.

GlacierEvery Wednesday is Tip Day (or quiz day).
Today: Quiz: Do you know yourself? It’s surprisingly hard.

My friend Michael Melcher, a career coach who used to practice law, just wrote an excellent (and quite funny) book called The Creative Lawyer; he also has a terrific blog. It’s aimed at helping lawyers find more job satisfaction – whether within law or outside of law – but it’s also a valuable resource for anyone trying to understand himself or herself better.

In doing the Happiness Project, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how hard it is to “Be Gretchen.” It’s oddly difficult even to appreciate my own interests. I have to remind myself of one of my most important Secrets of Adulthood: just because something is fun for someone else, doesn’t mean it’s fun for me – and vice versa. (See left column for all the Secrets of Adulthood.)

I’ve noticed that people often assume that everyone enjoys the same activities that they enjoy, because they believe those activities are inherently enjoyable – e.g., they enjoy arranging flowers because arranging flowers is just a fun thing to do. No! Not so.

Or else people assume that they in fact do enjoy what they think they SHOULD enjoy – e.g., they enjoy going to the theater, because going to the theater is a fun thing to do. Nope! Not true.

Here’s a quiz, lightly adapted from The Creative Lawyer, to help you figure out your interests. Not what you WISH interested you, but what ACTUALLY interests you.

1. What part of the newspaper do you read first?

2. What are three books you’ve read in the past year?

3. As a child, what did you do in your free time?

4. What’s a goal that has been on your list for a few years?

5. What do you actually do with your free time?

6. What types of activities energize you?

7. What famous people intrigue you?

You need to pay close attention to yourself. Skiing, drinking wine, going to concerts, eating pasta, gardening, shopping…all these activities are fun for some people, all these are chores for some people. Like me.

The better you understand your true likes and dislikes, the better able you are to make decisions – in work and leisure – that will make you happy.

The next step, then, is to act on your interests. For example, once I started paying close attention to myself, I realized that I’m fascinated by the subject of obesity. Just what is causing the dramatic rise in obesity? There doesn’t seem to be a way to act on this interest, other than to read articles and books on the topic, but I’m on the look-out. After all, I started a children’s literature reading group; maybe there’s some listserv or something I could join.

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Gosh, I love reading Seth Godin.

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I've just finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you'd like to pre-order the book, click here.

Do you think children bring happiness? Some experts say no; I say yes.

BlocksToday was the Little Girl’s first day of pre-school. She’ll only go two mornings a week, but still, this is the beginning of SCHOOL. We were both excited.

It’s a sunny, crisp day here in New York City, and I thought to myself, “Boy, it doesn’t get better than this,” as I pushed the stroller on our way there.

I’ve seen the argument that children don’t, in fact, add to people’s happiness. I don’t believe that. (I’m not arguing that people can’t be happy without children; of course they can.)

Children add to happiness for many reasons, but one way is that they help supply a key element to a happy life: an atmosphere of growth.

My First Splendid Truth is: To be happier, think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

No surprise, watching the growth of my children is exciting and gratifying. It’s thrilling to see them take each step forward.

But that’s not the only way they help provide “an atmosphere of growth.” Having children contributes to my growth, too. It requires me to learn new skills and new information. It puts me in contact with a new set of people; this morning I met a woman and her son who live on the corner of my block, whom I’d never seen before! It broadens my existence – would I know anything about Laurie Berkner, Ten Minutes Till Bedtime, or High School Musical if I didn’t have kids?

In keeping with family tradition, I took the Little Girl’s picture this morning, of her holding a sign that read, “First day of pre-school – September 18, 2007.” I do this on the last day each year, too. It occurred to me that before I knew it, three years would pass, and I’d be taking her picture with a sign saying “Last day of pre-school – June 2010.”

That’s the thing about life with children: the days are long, but the years are short. I want to revel in this first day, because in a flash, nursery school will be over.

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Do you have trouble sticking to your resolutions? Turns out that it really does matter.

HighwaYesterday’s New York Times Magazine had a very interesting cover story, Gary Taubes’s Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?

From a happiness perspective, the bit that caught my eye was about the “compliance effect” or “adherer effect.” It turns out that people who stick to a doctor’s orders – say, by taking a prescription – are different, and healthier, than people who don’t.

In one drug study, a group of men were assigned a drug or a placebo. The men who faithfully took their pills had significantly better outcomes than the men who didn’t – even the men who were only taking a placebo!

The conclusion: a group of people who faithfully adhere to a program that they think healthful (taking vitamins, exercising, eating a better diet) will have a different outcome from a group that doesn’t, for reasons that aren’t altogether clear.

Now, of course, we’d all like to be in the category of “adherers” who can stick to positive programs, but it’s tough to do.

The big question: How do you change yourself from a “non-adhererer” to an “adherer”?

Whenever I meet people who have stuck to a new resolution, I try to figure out how they did it. HOW did she transition to an entirely new career? HOW did he change his parenting style? HOW did they change from a couch-potato couple to a training-for-the-marathon couple? It’s so much easier to see what ought to be done than to do it.

I’ve seen the argument that prodigies in sports, music, chess, etc. don’t really exist, and that exceptional performance is the result of practice.

The most important quality for a prodigy, then, is not innate talent, but a drive to practice.

And so it may be with happiness, health, and many other desiderata. A key element is the ability to STICK to a resolution that would bring about change.

I’ve stumbled on some little tricks that help. For example, when I was trying to develop the habit of exercising, I always exercised on Monday. That got me started on the right foot for the week.

I started keeping my resolutions charts to keep myself constantly reviewing my resolutions and holding myself accountable. (As always, if you want to see a copy, just email me–see left-hand column)

When I was trying to give up my beloved Nutritious Creations chocolate-chip cookies, I decided that I would NEVER, EVER eat one again. As Samuel Johnson said, “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” If I ate one, I’d be back to two a day. (Okay, sometimes three a day.)

In fact, I’ve found, it’s often easier to do something NEVER or EVERY DAY than a couple of times a week. When a friend said she was having trouble getting herself to post to her blog two or three times a week, I suggested that she post every day. And that helped. I work on the Happiness Project book every single day, even if I just jot down notes for ten minutes, because that’s a habit that helps me actually get some writing done.

The advantage of doing something NEVER or EVERY DAY is that I don’t spend time fussing about when or how often I’m going to do something. I know that I absolutely can’t do it, or that I absolutely must do it.

If you have suggestions for strategies that have made it easier for you to stick to a resolution, please post them. I suspect other people are as interested as I am in how to be a better “adherer.”

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I always enjoy checking out Guy Kawasaki’s How To Change the World. He posts on all sorts of topics, almost always interesting.

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What is the real proof of love?

FlanneryoconnorBecause I’m on a Flannery O’Connor kick, I ordered A Memoir of Mary Ann, by the Dominican Nuns of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta (1961).

These nuns ran a free cancer home, where Mary Ann Long came to live at age 3. She had a cancerous tumor on her face; one eye had been removed. By the time she died, the tumor had grown so much that she couldn’t eat. She was only supposed to survive six months, but she lived to be twelve.

She must have been quite an extraordinary child. After her death, the nuns approached O’Connor, to try to persuade her to write an account of the little girl. She wouldn’t do it, but she helped shepherd their manuscript to publication and wrote an introduction to it – which is why I happened to hear about it.

It’s an interesting book for several reasons, but what struck me most was the observation, “Apparently [Mary Ann] knew at that early age that the proof of real love is sacrifice.”

That sentence stopped me in my tracks. It’s another way of expressing one of my favorite happiness precepts – Reverdy’s “There is no love, there are only proofs of love” – but more blunt. I asked myself: am I showing my love through sacrifice?

I know that sounds preachy and dramatic, but it’s a good question.

In my life, day to day, that mostly means sacrificing my time, attention, and convenience.

Am I putting down my book to listen to a convoluted account of last night’s bad dream? Am I putting down my magazine to “Watch, watch, watch!” for the tenth time? Am I cheerfully agreeing to pick something up, drop something off, look something up, or re-schedule some date? Am I swallowing my impulse to nag, to criticize, to complain, to point out mistakes?

Not very often. And I sure load myself lots of gold stars when I do. Speaking of nuns, St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “When one loves, one does not calculate,” and I’m still trying to shake the habit of counting up all my sacrifices to make sure I get my share in return. “You got to take a nap, so I get to go to the gym.” “I’m dealing with the packing, so you have to deal with the car.”

But there’s a fine line with sacrifice. Sacrificing too much is not good.

My Second Splendid Truth is: One of the best ways to make YOURSELF happy is to make OTHER PEOPLE happy; one of the best ways to make OTHER PEOPLE happy is to be happy YOURSELF.

If I sacrifice too much (realistically, not too much risk of that), if I don’t make sure I have enough time to read the newspaper, etc., it’s going to be hard for me to make anyone else very happy. Having fun and feeling energized make it easier to sacrifice for other people. It might not even feel like a sacrifice.

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I loved reading the comments on yesterday’s post, to see the life symbols people use: lion, phoenix, daisy, water drop, labyrinth, and all the rest. If you need ideas, or if you just like great lists, a reader thoughtfully posted the link to a website Universal Symbols that lists dozens.

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